Three months ago Split hosted a different kind of World Cup. The game was football — well, sort of — but the matches were played on a bit of concrete squeezed between the seafront and the Zvoncac swimming pool that is home to Jadran, the 1992 and 1993 European water polo champions.
The ball was oddly small, the goals completely disproportionate, as if put on their side with tall posts and a short crossbar. And in the middle of the pitch, there was a full-width step, about four inches high. Hence the name of the tournament: Prvenstvo svita u balunu na skalini – the Football On a Step World Cup. The ground itself is called Skalina – the Step.
In the summer heat, three-a-side teams run, dribble, pass and shoot, cheered by a crowd of spectators mainly in their swimming gear, while at the same time having to watch out for the step. “This is our ground, our rules,” laughs one participant, claiming the “world” title is justified. “Let anyone come here and play if they think they can challenge us.”
Some have tried and regretted it with the dreaded step claiming many casualties over the years. But the locals wouldn’t want it any other way. In fact, once the step was flattened and the pitch made even but the locals complained so much it was reinstated. “The players staggered around and stumbled around, looking back in confusion to where it used to be,” says Boris Dezulovic, who wrote about it in his book, Bili libar. The step was back to stay.
In this surreal setting Marko Livaja’s football career was born. And then reborn. Dezulovic describes him as being a “hairbrained hooligan” when he started to make a name for himself as an impossibly talented but hot-headed youngster. At 16, he was the top scorer of the Cetiri kafica (Four Cafés) indoor tournament, which is a big a deal in Split; his team lost the final, played in front of 10,000 people, but he outshone stars such as Ivan Perisic and Ivan Rakitic as well as some big-name veterans. “My boyhood dream came true,” the young Livaja said. “I played alongside legends like Davor Suker, whom I had only seen on television before.”
Later that season, he was poached by Inter and left Hajduk, his childhood club, without making a senior appearance, starting an odyssey that saw him play in Switzerland, Italy, Russia, Spain and Greece. Things did not go according to plan and he fell out with coaches and teammates, behaved erratically and acquired a reputation of being a troublemaker.
In the summers he would return to Split and play three-a-side games at Skalina or five- and six-a-side games on other pitches. His employers did not know. He never settled anywhere, not even at AEK Athens, where he won the league in 2018 and the Player of the Season award two years later. It wasn’t for him as he refused to sign a contract extension and, after being deemed surplus to requirements, was released in February 2021.
Rumours of a possible Hajduk return had started the previous summer when one of the Skalina players had said Livaja was considering it. And as soon as he was out of contract he was announced as a new Hajduk signing. The expectations were high, and understandably so, but no one could have foreseen the impact it would have on Hajduk as a club and its community.
Livaja initially signed a short-term deal and started slowly but towards the end of the 2020-21 season he was scoring a goal a game. That summer the fans launched a huge campaign trying to persuade him to stay: firemen, shipbuilders, schoolchildren, bus drivers all took part as well as fans from around the world. In the end there was no doubt: Hajduk released a video showing campaign photos and a simple message, written on a piece of paper in permanent marker: Livaja stays.
The following campaign he netted 32 goals in 40 games for Hajduk in all competitions and the fans, who already loved him, could not believe their luck. “No offer can take me away,” he said after winning the Croatian cup last season, as tens of thousands of fans invaded the pitch. “I never went for money and being here, at home, is what’s important to me. I enjoy it every day.”
He even has his own song now, written by Disconnect, a local rap group, with the lyrics: “Getting the goals, Marko Livaja / Killer balls, Marko Livaja / Three points here, Marko Livaja / I’m strong in the head, like Marko Livaja / Got under everyone’s skin / Let anyone come, I’m never bad / The stands implore me, they call me God.”
All in all he has 50 goals in 78 appearances since rejoining as well as registering 23 assists. Hajduk has not won the league title for 17 years but the momentum is with them. They are improving and growing as a club: they have 90,000 paying club members and Livaja, now 29, is their superhero. At times the striker has seemingly carried the team by himself with a whole range of moves and tricks that are normally only seen in playgrounds. And that is no coincidence, of course.
Hajduk knew of Livaja’s passion and let him carry on with it. He can still be seen playing football at various pitches around Split, even during the season. He simply loves football and was once seen making a quick exit having featured for only 20 minutes in a pre-season friendly. “That was a nice warm-up,” he told a journalist as he made his way to a kickabout with friends.
This season he even played for Hajduk despite receiving a phone call to say that that his father had died in a traffic accident. The club arranged for someone to take him home but he demanded to play. He always wants to play; he needs to play.
For Croatia he seemed a certain starter for their World Cup opener against Morocco on Wednesday until he picked up a knock in the last league game before the tournament. He may now start on the bench but should come on at some stage, he is the most complete forward in the squad.
Back home at the Skalina, where a large painting of Livaja now adorns the wall next to the pitch, they will be cheering his every move and counting the days until he is back with them again.